An Alvin Ailey-Inspired Dance Class

In a recent meeting of Class 6 Dance, a student read a poem that included the phrases “Soul Profound Fluid,” “Inspirational Fast Passion,” and “Courage Poetic Rising.” What did these words have to do with dance?

As their teacher, June Anderson, explained, the lines represented what had come to the students’ minds as they watched a video performance of Alvin Ailey’s formative work, “Revelations,” during an earlier class.

“Your words connect to the beauty, power and depth of Ailey’s choreography,” said Ms. Anderson, who teaches Dance and is Head of Middle School Arts and Integration.

Mr. Ailey (1931-1989), a celebrated African American dancer, director, choreographer and activist, created one of the most widely performed ballets in the world with “Revelations,” which premiered more than 60 years ago. In this Dance class, the magnificent piece, especially its second part, “Take Me to the Water,” served as the catalyst for the students’ own creativity.

After a brief warm up of stretches, the small class – composed of a group of physically distant students in the Black Box Theater and one joining remotely – began to move their bodies in a series of simple poses.

“Start with motion going from side to side,” directed Ms. Anderson, moving gracefully as the students followed along. “Ripple your arms like water. Shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger. Let the movement flow out.”

Over and over, they bent their knees, floated their arms and twirled around steadily. “That looked awesome, dancers,” said Ms. Anderson. “I really see the water motion.”

Next, they watched a short interview with Mr. Ailey and, to refresh their memories, a few minutes of the video from the middle “Revelations” section, which is performed to the African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” The students jotted down any additional words they thought of while observing the dance.

Taking turns sharing these new words – which would be added to their ongoing “Revelations” poem – the students suggested “elegant,” “lyrical,” “memorable,” and “joyous,” among others, before turning their attention back to Ms. Anderson.

They soon learned that the rest of the hour would be devoted to a challenging and fun choreography assignment. First, the students, working on their own or with a partner, were tasked with choosing three words from the poem. Next, they had to imagine distinct shapes to align with each word. Finally, they needed to weave the elements together cohesively.

“Honor Alvin Ailey by putting feeling and meaning into your work,” said Ms. Anderson. “Nothing he did was superficial.” With this encouragement, the students got right to work translating vocabulary into movement while music from “Revelations” played in the background.

Five minutes later, the students were asked to perform for the class. “I want to see beautiful expressions and powerful dance phrases,” said their teacher, calling for volunteers.

From her spot in the Black Box Theater, one student executed a trio of moves to the words “pulsing,” “showy” and “hope.” A pair of dancers interpreted “despair,” “hope” and “joy.” Another demonstrated shapes to “flowy,” “bouncy” and “slow.” They extended their fingers skyward, kicked their legs, spun on the floor, and jumped.

Ms. Anderson offered helpful feedback, reminding dancers to maintain their confidence and focus and to find ways to incorporate both action and stillness.

The students’ choreography was lively, and the determination they displayed was impressive. They had more Alvin Ailey-inspired dancing to look forward to in their next class meeting.

“Lovely work today,” praised Ms. Anderson as these Class 6 students transitioned to their next activity, no doubt energized by their afternoon of dance and poetry.